There’s No Place Like Jersey for the Holidays
"Iceland" by Drew Nelles, recommended by Electric Literature
Introduction by Halimah Marcus
The week between Christmas and New Year is a time of aimless languishing. Pajamas past noon, movies before dark. This can be either cozy or depressing, depending on your disposition. A much-needed rest after a busy year, or a chilling reminder of how easily the trappings of a purposeful, animated life can fall away. This week is particularly treacherous for the single, childless, adult child, who traditionally spends it at their parents’ house, either in some vestige of their old bedroom or on a pull-out sofa purchased in 1997.
“Iceland” by Drew Nelles takes place during this week, which the doctors in Weike Wang’s novel Joan is Okay call “the perineum of the year.” It’s private, protected. Something we all know is there but avoid talking about, preferring the more exciting bookends than the in-between. Or, as Nelles elegantly puts it: “It’s that strange week before the New Year, when time moves according to its own inscrutable logic and everyone is anxious for something to begin.”
I’m delighted to bring you this restrained, affecting story in the middle of this very week, when perhaps you too are in a home other than your own, drifting, waiting for someone to catch you. The narrator of “Iceland” is at his father’s house in New Jersey, having just ruined his most important friendship by speaking what had strategically been left unspoken for more than fifteen years. His mother has been dead longer than that; his sister is taking a romantic trip to Iceland, her first post-divorce. So it’s just him, his dad, and a maladjusted labradoodle named Ferdinand.
Being home, Nelles’s narrator remembers how each family member mourned their matriarch differently, incompatibly, so that they were alone in their grief. Those dynamics have held on, and the three prefer quips and small talk over direct address. “I don’t feel any kinship with my old self,” the narrator reflects, “but, confronted with the fact of his existence, I find him hard to escape.”
And yet, in the perineum, a glimmer of hope. A moment free of sarcasm, an invitation accepted, a bubble of silence, burst. There’s a new year on the horizon, and we’re all taking small risks to connect. Sometimes the cold, gray air of December feels exactly right. You take it deep into your lungs—and then you go inside.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading
There’s No Place Like Jersey for the Holidays
Iceland by Drew Nelles
After fifteen years of vegetarianism, I recently gave into despair and started eating meat. I’m also trying to quit smoking again, which means I’ve gained a bit of weight. It isn’t much—only five or ten pounds—and anyway, since I was so skinny before, I just seem healthy, like I’ve filled out. In my one concession to self-respect, I’ve been shaving every day, so my cheeks are soft and smooth, plump and pink. People tell me I look good, a decade younger. I’ve never felt worse.
A few months ago, I told my best friend, Ezra, that I was in love with him. I hadn’t meant to. I was at a used bookstore in Madison when he called me, as he had many times before, to gripe about his girlfriend, a nervous, wide-eyed woman of whom I happened to be rather fond. This time, though, the prospect of coaching Ezra through another breakup just made me tired. I wanted to lie down, right there on the floor of the bookstore, between the Greek myths and the fairy tales, and sleep forever in a glass coffin. It also didn’t seem fair to the girlfriend.
“I don’t think I’m the person you should be talking to about this,” I said, finally, and when Ezra asked why, the implicit answer hanging in the dead air of our phones, I understood that my years of silence, of gritting my teeth, were gone. For what? In the world of my dreams, things were supposed to remain unspoken until we were older. Maybe we would be in our late forties, both freshly divorced, cleaning up after a dinner party in his too-bright kitchen, the other guests out the door. Maybe we would open an extraneous bottle of wine and, in a moment of revelation, share a kiss. Instead, we’re no longer speaking. At thirty-five, I’ve started graduate school in Wisconsin, where I don’t know anyone, and I can’t even call Ezra up to complain.
So: home to Jersey City for the holidays. Christmas has come and gone. It’s that strange week before the New Year, when time moves according to its own inscrutable logic and everyone is anxious for something to begin. I’ll go back to Wisconsin in January—back to cold pizza from the departmental fridge, back to color and selfhood in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For now, I have nowhere else to be. My father and sister and I lurch around the house, weighed down by sloth and gluttony. When my mother was alive, holidays were loud, with mortifying singalongs and arcane Christmas-morning rituals, but these days they’re muted. There are no husbands or wives, no children or grandchildren. Just the three of us, all adults now, in the little house we once shared. We give each other modest presents: packets of seeds for my father, something black and leather for my sister, a book about books for me. The Christmas tree is artificial, with built-in lights.
Now I have to drive my sister to the airport. She’s flying to Reykjavik to spend New Year’s Eve with her boyfriend, the first man she’s dated since her divorce. He’s quiet, with a musical Icelandic accent; I assume he believes in elves or fairies. A world away from her unnervingly chipper ex-husband. I’m happy for her, even if there’s some part of me that wonders whether she and I can be happy at the same time—if one of us has to be down for the other to be up. We get into my father’s car and head for the I-78.
“Do you think Dad’s okay?” she asks. I shrug. Like most selfish children, I find it hard to imagine that my father has an existence independent of my own.
It’s dark out. When we were kids, Christmases had always been white, or at least they were in my memory. Now winter arrives in a torrent of mud. Fog rolls through like tear gas. Then, without warning, the days plunge into bitter cold. It feels like divine punishment—all those wonderful years, squandered. The planet trying to buck us off. I can’t blame it.
“This trip is a bad idea,” my sister says. “It’s too soon. I barely know Gunnar.”
“I think it’ll be interesting,” I say. “Apparently Iceland uses one hundred percent renewable energy.”
“They eat fermented shark there. They bury the shark in the ground and let it rot. Then they cut it up into little cubes and serve it on toothpicks, like fucking cheese or something. Gunnar says it smells like bleach and piss. He says I should give it a try.”
“I’d like to go to Iceland someday. While there are still planes in the sky.”
“Maybe you should go instead of me,” my sister says. “Maybe you should eat the piss shark.”
We drive past one of those trucks that transports livestock. It’s crammed with pigs, their flanks heaving against the sides. Some stick their intelligent snouts through the holes, nostrils flexing, getting a first and last taste of winter air. Even with the windows closed, I can smell them—that doomed barnyard funk.
“I guess they eat a lot of hot dogs in Iceland too,” my sister says. “But they’re made of lamb.”
The sole addition to the flock this year is my father’s miniature labradoodle, Ferdinand. I once read an article in which the creator of the labradoodle said that the breed is his life’s great regret, that he made a monster. He may have had a point. Ferdinand is odd. He hunts ghosts in the walls. His eyes are insectile. If I try to read or watch television, he sits nearby and stares at me. I don’t like animals; I’d been a vegetarian for the sake of the environment. The wasted water and grain and land, the methane clouds of cow farts, the lagoons of pig shit in which farm workers periodically drown. But Ferdinand, for all his supernatural intuition, doesn’t seem to pick up on this. At night, as I lie in bed, he whines at my door.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table, trying to do a puzzle, trying not to think about smoking. My dad wanders in, Ferdinand at his heels, and puts the kettle on. He’s sixty-seven, bespectacled and reduced. My sister and I—his alien progeny—tower over him. (We take after our mother, who stood five-foot-eleven.) A few years ago, after three decades as a public-library administrator, my father retired. He spends his days reading, gardening, sketching. At Christmas, he makes an effort, hanging wreaths on the doors and filling the house with blazing-red poinsettias. Ezra and I once tried to set our dads up as friends; they met in the city, halfway between Jersey and Connecticut, where Ezra’s father ran a hedge fund. It didn’t go well. Later Ezra told me that his father found mine sad. He added, with a meaningful look, “He’s not wrong.” Anyway, my dad has Ferdinand now.
The puzzle is an idyllic scene of New York in the winter. There are people bustling around with gifts under their arms, shops and apartments with glowing windows, snow falling on elevated subway tracks. It makes me miss New York. I’ve pieced together the puzzle’s edges but not much else. I’m no good at puzzles.
“Your sister texted,” my father says. “She’s still on her layover in Copenhagen.”
Ferdinand puts a paw on my leg.
“I think there’s something wrong with Ferdinand,” my father says.
“Don’t you think he’s acting strange?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “He’s always strange.”
I step onto the front porch and crack my knuckles in the cold. In my jacket pocket there’s a pack of American Spirit Yellows. I’ve been keeping one cigarette in there, as a reminder or a punishment. When I open the pack, though, it’s empty.
My father follows me outside, and Ferdinand follows him. The dog sniffs the half-frozen grass, searching for the best place to pee.
“I thought you quit,” my dad says, tugging at his mustache.
“I did,” I say. “I did.” The vapor from my breath looks like cigarette smoke.
Across the street, the neighbors have an absurd Christmas display: gigantic blow-up decorations of Santa, the Grinch, Frosty the Snowman. At night, they sway menacingly, illuminated by a row of multicolored spotlights. During the day, they slump on the lawn, deflated and spent.
Inside, the kettle whistles. I worry that if I stay in the house a moment longer, I’ll do something I’ll regret, like call Ezra or strangle Ferdinand. Maybe I need a task.
“I’m going to get some Nicorette,” I say.
After my mother died, everyone in the family responded in their own unhealthy ways. My sister, three years older than me, partied in the city every weekend while still, somehow, maintaining straight As. My father filled every practical void left by my mother’s absence—he had always done the cleaning, and now, in addition to cooking, he redoubled his efforts around pickups and drop-offs and homework help—without ever actually talking about her death. My coping mechanism was this: I started breaking into houses.
I never stole anything. Not out of principle—I was just too scared. (It’s true that I sometimes raided the fridge, but I did my dishes after.) I was thirteen. I figured—accurately, as it turned out—that trespassing might be a lower-level offense than burglary. The houses in my neighborhood were simple enough to get into. People kept their front doors locked, but sometimes they left keys under fake rocks, or forgot about their back entrances. I left school during lunch time so that I could enter in broad daylight, when I wouldn’t look suspicious, and it was less likely that someone might be home. All in all, this was easier than you’d think.
Once I was inside, if I was hungry, I’d make myself a sandwich. It was disturbing, almost, how every house had some combination of the same ingredients: white bread and processed cheese and cold cuts and mayonnaise, the kind of stuff my mother never allowed us when she was alive. But now I could eat my fill. Then I would drift around, testing out the furniture, reading the spines of the books and the movies. In one house, I found a pack of Kools; when I tried one, lighting it off the gas range, it made me want to puke. In another, I discovered a cache of pornographic magazines under a bed. We didn’t have a computer at home then, so I’d never really seen that kind of thing. The magazines were full of astonishing hues of pink and white. There were winking anuses, pyramidal layers of labia, rivulets of pale semen on tanned buttocks. The women on all fours, surgical scars under their breasts, faces frozen in rictus. The men’s clean-shaven genitals. I put the magazines back under the bed; they weren’t quite what I was looking for. Mostly I just liked to touch things, to imagine other people’s lives.
At last I got caught. I was sitting in a La-Z-Boy, watching Face/Off, one of my favorite movies. Just as Nicolas Cage said, “I’d like to take his face…off,” somebody walked in.
I was arrested, handcuffs and all, and charged with breaking and entering. My father hired a lawyer for more than he could afford. I had to make a court appearance, wearing the best clothes I owned: corduroy pants, a wool sweater over a collared shirt, black sneakers that could, in the right light, pass for dress shoes. In the courtroom, trembling before the judge, it was all I could do not to cry. But later—after the judge let me off with community service and said my record would be expunged when I turned eighteen—I felt strangely disappointed. Was that it?
As we left the courthouse, my father said I could take the rest of the day off school. But I wanted to go back and be normal again.
Now dusk is falling, and I’m driving my father’s Toyota Avalon through the streets I used to prowl. The houses are mostly dark, although here and there are Christmas lights strung along the gutters, the blue-green flicker of a television, the warmth of a kitchen chandelier. I don’t feel any kinship with my old self, but, confronted with the fact of his existence, I find him hard to escape. I also want a cigarette.
I drive to the 7/11, in the sad plaza with the dentist’s office and the McDonald’s, and park out front. Through the window, I can see the rows of cigarettes behind the counter. Somewhere in there are my American Spirit Yellows, on a gradient between the Oranges and the Greens. The objectionable Native mascot will be smoking his pipe next to a warning about cancer or emphysema. At NYU, Ezra’s brand was Pall Malls. Whenever we would step out of a party or a bar for a cigarette, he would complain that I was too slow—that it took too long to smoke my American Spirits. He always wanted to get back inside, to rejoin the others, but I was never in any rush. Eventually Ezra quit, at the highly responsible age of twenty-four, and I had to smoke by myself.
My phone rings. “I hope you have a roaming plan,” I say.
“A vacation is a roaming plan,” my sister says. “If you think about it literally. Christ, I’m bored.”
“We’re still stuck in Copenhagen. You wouldn’t believe how clean this airport is. It makes Newark look like—well, like Newark. What are you up to?”
I stare into the 7/11, as blindingly white as a laboratory. “Out for a drive.”
“That’s nice. Gunnar has gone to get us another round of Scandinavian pour-overs. Seriously, airports shouldn’t be like this. It’s deranged.”
An elderly woman, plush reindeer antlers on her head, shuffles to the register with her purchases: a Slim Jim, a two-liter bottle of Coke Zero. She gestures at something behind the counter.
“I’m thinking of making a run for it,” my sister says. “Maybe I should go to the red-light district and legally purchase intercourse.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s Amsterdam.”
“Whatever. If these people didn’t want us to mix them up, they shouldn’t all be so slim and attractive. Listen, Gunnar’s back. Take care of Dad, okay?”
The woman with the antlers comes out of the 7/11 and rifles through her plastic bag. I hope whatever she pulls out will be a sign that I should buy cigarettes—a pack of Camels, a can of Skoal, even a Juul—but it’s just her Slim Jim. With shaking hands, a junkie preparing a fix, she unpeels it and takes a bite. Her mouth has the caved-in appearance of the infirm.
I turn my phone off. Then I back out of the 7/11 and drive across the plaza to the McDonald’s.
My first post-vegetarian meal was easy: a few strips of bacon with breakfast. Later I had tuna fish, chicken Pad Thai, even some goat from a friend’s organic-farm basket. For Christmas dinner I indulged my father and ate a massive, Mesozoic turkey drumstick. But I haven’t done this—idled a car in a fast-food drive-thru— since I was a teenager. I try to make it feel like the forbidden luxury it once was: the golden arches glowing above me, the backlit menu glowing too, everything looking so good, so bright and so brown. Brown buns, brown meat, brown fries, brown cola. The occasional colorful pop of lettuce or ketchup. Variations on a theme. When I arrive at the tinny speaker, though, the only thing I want is a Big Mac combo.
I find a parking spot. The Big Mac tastes nothing like I remember, which makes me feel like I have no memory of it at all. The burger is oddly sweet. The patties are thin and grey, neither warm nor cold. It’s hard to believe there’s any meat in them; maybe there isn’t. The French fries are exquisite.
What can I tell you about Ezra? He’s the smartest man I’ve ever known, and also the dumbest. You should hear him defend Houellebecq or dismiss Ashbery. You should see his hands, the size of them; you should feel the mountain of his body as he envelops you in a hug. He comes from old coal money, and, although he isn’t quite proud of that fact, he seems to relish its wrongness, the discomfort it inspires in others. He used to write poetry, pretty traditional stuff, although he gave up on it before I did. He’s beautiful when he loses his temper, and when he grew his beard it gave him a look of perpetual umbrage. He has a fondness for conversational simile. A girl who won’t leave him alone is—he will say—“like Spanish moss on a live oak.” A professional quandary is like King Minos refusing to sacrifice the divine bull. When Ezra talks, nothing is ever what it is. It’s always something else.
I drive home from the McDonald’s, the tang of special sauce on my tongue, listening to a radio report about air pollution in New Delhi. The report says that dense winter air causes something called inversion, an atmospheric layer that traps particulate matter close to the ground. This means pollution has nowhere to go. Right now, it’s as if the entire city is in a dome of smog—from gasoline mixed with kerosene, from burning dung and rice straw. The skies in Delhi are gray. People walk in the haze like ships sailing through mist. This is the worst winter on record. “We’re practically smoking the air,” a Delhi resident says.
When I arrive, my dad is hovering in the doorway. “Where have you been?” he asks. “I tried calling you, but your phone is off.”
“My phone is off,” I say, pointlessly.
“Ferdinand is sick,” he says. The dog limps over and hacks at the ground, but no vomit comes.
At the veterinarian’s, my father holds Ferdinand as the dog whimpers and twitches, trying to wriggle from his lap into mine. The waiting room is full. There’s a listless Saint Bernard with red eyes and ropes of drool hanging from its jowls. A jewel-like parakeet in a tiny cage, flitting from one perch to the other. A cat—or what I assume is a cat—invisible in the darkness of its plastic carrier. On the reception desk is a little battery-operated candle and a sign. If this candle is lit, the sign says, someone is saying goodbye to their beloved pet. Please keep your voice down during this difficult time. The candle isn’t lit. Still, when my father speaks, it’s in a whisper. His voice is shaky.
“Do you think Ferdinand will be okay?” he asks.
A technician calls us into one of the examination rooms. As I pat my father on the shoulder, I imagine moving in with him, caring for him in his old age, watching police procedurals every night until I am also old. It occurs to me that this is probably the best use of my time. I might never do or be or create anything of note. Ezra might never love me back; in fact, he absolutely will not. But I can take care of my father. That has to mean something.
When the veterinarian comes in, she apologizes for the delay. There are always a lot of problems around Christmas, she says—pets getting into things they shouldn’t. She’s blunt and efficient, her hair in a practical ponytail. “I’m sure Ferdinand will be fine,” she says. She pops a tablet of apomorphine out of a blister pack and slips it into a Greenies pill pocket. Ferdinand sniffs it suspiciously but eats it anyway.
He vomits almost immediately. In my mind, I look down into the neon slime of his mess and see, bent but unbroken, a single American Spirit. The veterinarian, leaning in close, sees it too.
“One of you a smoker?” she says.
But that isn’t what happens. Instead, the veterinarian, examining Ferdinand’s vomit, asks, “Do you have any poinsettias in the house?”
The next day is New Year’s Eve. In the morning, I sit at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of Cheerios, the unfinished puzzle of New York in front of me. Soon I’ll go back to Wisconsin; I’ll reckon, once again, with the Green Knight, his disembodied head rolling on Camelot’s floor over and over. In the meantime, Ferdinand, still recovering from his brush with death, has left me alone. He’s asleep in the living room, beneath the artificial Christmas tree, and through the doorway I watch him dream. His legs jerk, his eyes flutter open and then close. Sometimes he yelps. I assume that, in his dreams, he is no longer a miniature Frankenstein’s monster but an apex predator like his ancestors, bringing down the megafauna my own forebears hunted to extinction during the last great Ice Age. In real life, though, he’s still Ferdinand. When we got home last night, my father threw out all the poinsettias.
My phone dings; it’s my sister. She’s sent me a message, a video accompanied by a single word: “Iceland.” The black screen fills with eerie glowing curtains of green and blue. Then come reds and purples and pinks, shifting against the stars and the night sky. It’s the aurora borealis, of course. The lights are both beautiful and extraterrestrial, radioactive, like something the government wouldn’t want us to see, and I almost find it hard to believe that my sister is there, observing this with her own eyes—that this video is not part of some elaborate deception, one designed to fool me into thinking such a phenomenon were actually possible. In the background Gunnar is talking, with his funny accent, about solar wind, coronal mass ejections, the excitation of atmospheric constituents. But it’s hard to catch what he’s saying because my sister keeps repeating the same thing. “Holy fucking fuck,” she keeps saying. “Holy fucking fuck.”
My father comes into the kitchen and sits at the table. “How’s Ezra doing these days?” he asks.
I look up from my phone. My dad is blinking behind his glasses.
“I don’t know,” I say, as steadily as I can manage. “We haven’t been in touch for a while.”
“Oh,” my dad says, pulling at his moustache. “That’s a shame. So—you’re not going out tonight? You’re not going into the city?”
“It’s just New Year’s.”
My dad keeps tugging at his mustache. “You don’t want to go out with some friends?”
“It’s not a big deal,” I say. “I guess I figured I’d stay in. We can watch the ball drop.”
“Right,” my father says. “Well. I’m just asking because—because I was planning to go to a little party.”
“Yes, a party. I’m sure that’s hard to believe.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “No, that’s great. A party with who?”
“With some friends,” my father says. “With a friend.” He stands up, suddenly regal. “Maybe you can keep an eye on Ferdinand for me.”
That night, a sensible green Volvo pulls up in front of the house. In a spasm of formality, I walk my father out the door, into the winter air, and, as if to reciprocate, he does something just as unusual: he tugs me down to his level and gives me a kiss on the cheek through the bristle of his moustache. Then he holds me and takes a deep breath. For a second, I feel a primordial sense of belonging, as if I were a newborn baby who smelled of milk and yeast, and the two of us stand there, in our awkward half-embrace, both slightly off-balance, until Ferdinand skips out the door, at which point my father leans down to scoop him up, and the moment passes. He deposits Ferdinand in my arms and heads across the lawn, shoulders hunched in his peacoat.
It’s only when my father reaches the passenger door of the Volvo that I realize he was checking me for the smell of cigarette smoke. By then, though, he’s lowering himself into the car, Cinderella heading to the ball. The driver—a woman I’ve never met before, with elegant silver hair and a patterned scarf—waves at me shyly through the car window. She’s trying, if nothing else. Standing in the doorway, the light from the house pooling out behind me, I try to wave back, but Ferdinand is in my arms, straining to follow my father, and so all I can manage is an awkward flick of my hand.